The ‘Chinaman’ in the basement: Visual den narratives of the late-nineteenth century

Historically, art and literature have served a fundamental role in mirroring (and perhaps creating) a society’s cultural climate; they have become the means through which a society comes to ‘know’ itself. By artistically or literally depicting categories of people, or ‘social types’, one is easily able to comprehend society at large. Yet the socio-cultural worldview that art and literature inform is often based on idealised depictions of reality, heavily influenced by custom, tradition, optimism and romanticism; however, so too does it oft include realistic portrayals of everyday, plebeian life.

In reflecting a particular socio-cultural ‘reality’, art and literature have also played a historic role in constructing meta-narratives of criminality. This paper will explore the way in which mass-media ventures of the late-nineteenth-century, specifically popular illustrated fiction, served to shape Victorian notions of criminality by establishing an archetypal, Asian ‘Other’ as a villainous criminal.

The nineteenth century is often characterized by its rigid Protestant attitudes and values, and its “prudishness and high moral tone”. In England, Victorians were well-known for their fixed ideological attitudes, which featured a notion of the inevitable corruption of the poor, repressed sexuality, and a strong tendency towards reformation.

As technological advances encouraged mass production and spawned the so-called ‘industrial revolution’, urban populations in Europe (and North America) greatly increased. By 1851, for example, over half of the British population was living in urban regions. As cities developed, the traditionally upper- and middle-class, white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant inhabitants of urban communities were burdened with the arrival of diverse groups of aliens. With their inherent ‘Other-ness’ – including, among others, a foreign set of religious doctrine and decree, suspect cultural practices, and visible signs of foreignness – such underrepresented and relatively powerless under-classes of new immigrants/foreigners were seen as posing a threat to the existing, traditional worldview and ‘moral order’ of established, white, Christian, British society.

In London, for example, a noteworthy increase in the number of Indian and Chinese emigrants meant that the city was swelling with a new social underclass of destitute/desperate/poor immigrants. As Curtis Marez describes:

Of particular concern to Londoners was the increasingly visible presence of the Chinese in [London’s] East End. During the 1880s and 90s, Chinese emigration to England, particularly London, greatly increased. By 1881 there were over 665 Chinese in England, up from 147 twenty years earlier.

As immigration increased, Britain was able and eager to indirectly blame its newcomers for a myriad of social dilemmas: Asian ‘foreigners’ were thus (indirectly) held responsible for the general ‘corruption’ of the Christian soul, having imported the problems of poverty, drugs, and immorality to their new home. As discussed in “Opium for Victorian England”:

The “oriental” element was accused of badly influencing the moral British society, further disseminating prejudice and partial representations of Asians, while diminishing the role of England itself in its own infliction.

The notion of an ‘Oriental contaminant’ had also made its way across the ocean, to the United States, where both Chinese immigration to major US cities and the import of opium was on the rise. As Jeffrey Scot McIllwain describes:

…The rumour amongst non-Chinese that wealthy young men from respectable families and, more importantly, many young women and girls were being induced to visit the Chinese opium dens, where they were reputedly “ruined morally and otherwise”.

The most obvious example/case of this ethnic scapegoating is evident in a discussion of Victorian opium use. Opium use in Britain was a widespread and quite unremarkable part of daily life for over a century in the latter half of the nineteenth century. One estimate claims that approximately eighty percent of working-class English families used opium for some medicinal purpose on a regular basis. As a remedy, opium was relatively cheap and easily accessible: physicians dispensed opiates directly to patients, or the drugs could be prescribed and sold over the counter at a pharmacy. As Barry Milligan describes in Pleasures and Pains: Opium and the Orient in Nineteenth-Century British Culture:

Britons could buy opium in pills, powders, and plasters, liniments, lozenges, and laundanum, syrups, suppositories, and seed capsules straight off the poppy stalk.

It seems ironic that while both Victorian government and society demanded a rigid standard of behaviour from citizens, there were some dubious realities hidden from public discussion. While its medicinal uses may have been well-documented, for example, the general public was not aware of opium’s popular ‘recreational’ value.

It appears, however, that ethical and moral questions about opium use only arose after the mass immigration of Chinese to London:

…To many English people the Chinese nonetheless appeared to constitute a threat to public safety. Fear of the Chinese helps explain the fin-de-siècle outcry over opium, for even though opiates were widely available throughout the nineteenth century, they were only perceived as a problem when coupled with increasing Chinese emigration to London.

Opium smoking had long been a commonplace – and traditional – indulgence in China and India, and this recreational habit transferred well to Victorian society. For members of the leisure class, pressured by a constant obligation to ‘keep up appearances’, opium became a closeted – although legal – way to break from the binds of the Victorian society that “prescribed an unfaltering strength of will and constant sobriety from every individual”. In this sense, opium dens provided a locale for wealthy, ‘responsible’ British citizens to shake off their masks of decency and sobriety away from public view.

It should be noted, however, that while the ‘criminal’ act in question (opium smoking) was not illegal during the period, it was nonetheless perceived as a morally reprehensible social deviance (or rather, a particular ethnic ‘flaw’), and can thus be considered synonymous with ‘crime’.

How, then, did this secondary, socially-unacceptable habit of opium-smoking for pleasure surface in the public arena? How did ‘the masses’ finally come to know of these ‘crimes’? As the reality of opiate use was largely hidden, it became part of the agenda of art and literature to reflect the social reality of a leisure-class indulgence in opium’s sinful pleasures.

While the fine arts may have been able to depict this social ‘underworld’ through painting or portraiture, their reach would have been limited to a small, select audience of a privileged class. Instead, such information reached the working-class populace through mass-produced, popular fiction. In particular, the distinct genre of the detective story provided the ‘everyman’ with a window into the many underground realms of decadent upper-crust Victorian society. In doing so, such fiction also emerged as a method which “satisfied a Victorian desire for social and epistemological order” by – accurately or not – classifying and categorizing types of social personalities.

Thus types (both stereotypes and archetypes) emerged in popular fiction as an index of various social personalities, and more specifically, of criminals and criminality. The most blatant cases of criminal (mis-)representation in such fiction emerged in ‘den narratives’ – tales of travels (usually a rich, white man’s) into the seedy urban underbelly of the opium den. These stories chronicled ventures into the crypt of the basement opium den to observe the desolate ‘opium masters’ in their own domain. I suspect that den narratives became popular at least in part due to their depiction of the opium den as deeply interwoven with, almost integral to, British society. As Barry Milligan describes,

…With the influx of Oriental immigrants in the 1860s, popular journalists and fiction writers began to portray London’s East End opium dens, with both delight and trepidation, as miniature Orients within the heart of the British Empire.

In their implicit suggestion of an opium den as a “miniature Orient within the heart of the British Empire” – as an urban core – den narratives gained the trust of white readers, echoing fears of a disease-like spread of Orientalism and a strong desire to escape responsibility for national difficulties. The tales also spoke to a specific socio-cultural audience, depicting a pseudo-scientific, supposedly ‘objective’ account through which society could identify, contain and manage these delinquents. As described in “Restyling the Secret of the Opium Den”:

Most opium den narratives promise to expose the secrets of the occult den, and, crucially, promise that the secrets it reveals are objective truths. Carefully designed to thrill the reader, they achieve their frisson by presenting themselves as straightforward and unadorned accounts of reality.

Thus such texts almost always attributed the heinous, morally-reprehensible act of opium-smoking to a particular brand of suspect: the ‘exotic’ ‘Chinaman’ . In Oscar Wilde’s “Picture of Dorian Gray”, for example:

… A gentleman finds thrilling adventure within the familiar city by travelling in disguise through dark and gloomy streets to a secluded lair. The den in Wilde’s novel is, like those depicted in other texts, a doubly exotic site where the gentleman mingles with social and racial others, pursuing illicit satisfaction among vicious criminals and grotesque “Orientals”.

As the genre became increasingly popular, the texts also began to feature complementary illustrations. Such images reflected the same sordid, fantastical underworld of opium-culture as the stories they accompanied, and for this reason, can be considered visual den narratives. The symbolic connotations employed by such visual texts is particularly interesting: it seems that the opium den made such a fascinating landscape for indirect socio-cultural warfare precisely because it served as a point of comparison between British and Chinese culture (or perhaps, native and immigrant culture), although the two were (during the late nineteenth century) inextricably linked into the cultural fabric of one another.

Of all the turn of the century visual den narratives, the most notable (such as Sherlock Holmes’ opium exploration in “The Man with the Twisted Lip”) can be found in one publication. For a sixty year period beginning at the end of the nineteenth century, The Strand Magazine remained one of the leading popular fiction magazines in the UK (and later in the United States), delivering stories to a mass audience in a cheap monthly format. The publication targeted family readership with a variety of stories from a milieu of genres – including fictitious tales of crime, mystery, “illustrated interviews” and even “portraits of celebrities” – and attracted readers with stories from famous writers of the day (most notably Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s popular “Sherlock Holmes” series).

The publication’s greatest draw, however, was not only its claim to prominent authors, but also its exceptional publishing quality. To draw readers’ attention, The Strand published most articles alongside original artwork and photographs from popular artists , boasting “a picture on every page” (which was very expensive to produce at the time); it thus became as well-known for its visual components as much as for its literary counterparts.

The Strand’s exceptional visual tradition began at the dawn of its first publication in January 1891; this first edition, a 112-page volume, featured a series of accompanying photographs and illustrations.

One image from the first edition – “A Night in an Opium Den” (author and date unknown), typifies this type of visual den narrative common to late nineteenth-century England. Published in The Strand Magazine in 1891, the image, (like most in the same tradition) uses various aesthetic and cultural signs/motifs/symbols/cues to stereotype/typecast ‘Chinamen’ as villainous vagabonds and criminals, in contrast to the supremely ‘virtuous’, law-abiding Victorian citizens. Timothy L. Carens further elaborates:

Both London, a Pilgrimage [Gustave Doré’s effort at documenting 1890s London photo-journalistically] and “A Night in an Opium Den” (1891) feature illustrations of Asians smoking in the den to complement descriptions of the degenerate “Orientals” who have established colonies in the back alleys of the city. At the end of the nineteenth century, however, they served as crucial evidence of the secret reality glimpsed by unbiased spectators.

One should note that the image doesn’t make any direct claims to such an intent; however, the caption (“In the [opium] den”), the visualization of the figures (with long thing ponytails, traditional garb and slanted eyes), and the surrounding narrative text (a story of an Englishwoman’s venture into addiction with the ‘Chinamen’) make it safe to assume that this is a rendering of Chinese ‘opium masters’ in their basement den.

Of all the aesthetic characteristics of “A Night in an Opium Den”, the most apparent/visible formal feature of the illustration is its colour, or lack thereof. It appears to be a black and white etching, although it is hard to be certain of the medium or the technique involved in its production. The stark black and white contrast – similar to a film noir or an Edward Gorey illustration – add to the image’s dramatic, or theatrical, quality.

The three figures – as well as the setting in general – appear in high contrast, which adds to the intensity of the image. Like film noir or pulp fiction magazines, the black and white contrast serves to heighten the dramatic impact of the scene: as bright candlelight hits their faces, the figures appear grotesque, exaggerated, and somehow sinister or corrupt, as if their physical environment were mirroring their interiority. This depiction of the ‘Chinamen’ as morally and socially inferior creatures was fundamental to upholding a Victorian notion of the ideal WASP in contrast to the newly-arrived, lower-class den-dweller. As Sandra S. Phillips notes:

… It was convenient to think of [the lower class] as belonging not only to a different class, but to a different race. Social thinks found evidence for this in what they saw as a propensity for a low state of morality, and a concomitant propensity for crime. Such philosophers believe that the ease with which the poor might enter into crime was revealed in their appearance. Thus, when a criminal was visualized by popular moralizers… he looked like a brute, like a less evolved being.

One may also view the image as a criminal document – such as mugshot – more than an artistic creation: as if a hidden camera or police photographer were to have ‘captured’ the criminals in the act. This is accentuated by a torn, hanging cloth that seems to frame the ‘crime scene’, much like a theatrical curtain. This approach – of utilizing dramatic criminal imagery while also making truth to ‘capturing’ a crime in a semi-journalistic fashion – is similar to that employed decades later by ‘True Crime’ magazines. One gets the feeling that the wrong-doing ‘Chinamen’ have been discovered in their natural habitat (a lair of sin), much like the confines of feared animals at a zoo.

The artist’s chosen distance from the scene is also worthy of consideration. The image’s ‘gaze’, if you will, is far enough away from the characters to deny facial detail or emotional expression, and thus limits a viewer’s interpretation of the criminal persona to one of a poor, Chinese ‘everyman’. However, the distance between the artist’s ‘eye’ and the scene suggests a geographical remoteness between the viewer and subject. To the nineteenth-century reader, this may have meant that the crime was taking place in an alien locale (that of the hidden, basement den), or that, moreover, one ought to view these savage, barbaric, and corrupt individuals from a position of authority and judgement, as if on trial for their crimes.

The image’s textural patterns – which include a delicate use of hatching and cross-hatching – lend to a certain sense of unrefinement and roughness. Such coarseness suggests a certain desperation, almost as if these den-dwellers have been physical scraping or clawing through the scene (as suggested by the torn hanging cloth and bed sheet) in search of something (perhaps one is to suspect a desperation for food, drink, money or drugs, as is expected of most ‘addicts’ and vagabonds). Furthermore, such torn fabric, along with the broken ceiling boards, minimal-at-best interior decoration and table-bed furniture hybrid, contributes to the scene’s tone of dinginess and destitution. In depicting an encounter with the Chinese as a “viscerally disturbing, profoundly exotic experience”, the images constructs the Chinese as absolutely foreign to English sensibilities, and expresses subliminal racial disgust and ethno-cultural scapegoating.

One may wonder about the motivation for this unintentional exoticism and scapegoating of Victorian crime. At the time, crime could be associated with a dangerous, or suspect, ‘taste’ for foreign sensation. Thus it seems reasonable to assume that during times of colonial expansion, the transmission of such ‘foreignness’ through crime and dissent (that is, the transformation of the British [good] into Asian, and particularly Chinese [bad]) could realize Victorian fears of social and political ‘decay’.

Such visual den narratives thus provided an outlet via which Western audiences could come to ‘know’ the new, alien members of their society.; and by the same token, such visualizations of ‘crime’ became a key proponent of Victorian stereotypes (and perhaps prejudices) of the immigrant ‘Other’.


1. Carens, Timothy L. “Restyling the Secret of the Opium Den.” Reading Wilde, Querying Spaces. New York University. 15 Oct. 2005 .

2. Forrester, Stephen. “Doyle, Houdini and The Strand Magazine.” 27 Oct. 2005 .

3. Marez, Curtis. Drug Wars: The Political Economy of Narcotics. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004.

4. Marez, Curtis. “The Other Addict: Reflections on Colonialism and Oscar Wilde’s Opium Smoke Screen.” ELH 64 (1997): 257-287. JSTOR. 29 Oct. 2005.

5. McIllwain, Jeffrey Scott. Organizing Crime in Chinatown: Race and Racketeering in New York City, 1890-1910. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company Inc, 2004.

6. Milligan, Barry. Pleasures and Pains: Opium and the Orient in Nineteenth-Century British Culture. London: University Press of Virginia, 1995.

7. “Opium for Victorian England.” Victorians’ Secret: Victorian Substance Abuse. University of Texas at Arlington. 22 Nov. 2005 .

8. Phillips, Sandra S. “Identifying the Criminal.” In Sandra S. Phillips, Mark Haworth-Booth and Carol Squiers. Police Pictures: The Photograph as Evidence. San Francisco: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 1997, pp. 11-32.

9. Pittard, Christopher. “Victorian Detective Fiction ~ An Introduction.” Victorian Detective Fiction. 2003. University of Exeter. 9 Nov. 2005 .

10. Strand magazines and bound volumes from PRBooks. 6 Nov. 2005 .

11. Willis, Chris. “Crime, Class and Gender.” 3 Nov. 2005 .


1. A Night in an Opium Den.

One thought on “The ‘Chinaman’ in the basement: Visual den narratives of the late-nineteenth century

  1. badmash

    October 23, 2010 at 12:57am

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